Coming Soon to the Nation's Capital
WASHINGTON - Amid the massive marble and granite facades of Washington,
D.C., the limestone and glass curves of a new structure stand out like a
The building, flagship of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI)
on the national Mall, is soon to open its doors to a project that, in its
earliest phase, began more than a century ago.
In 1897, George Gustav Heye bought a deerskin shirt from a Navajo woman
mending it on a railroad construction site. An engineer by trade and son of
a rich oil executive, young Heye went on to gather Native objects with
unflagging zeal - and a little help from the family fortune.
For 50 years, Heye tramped across Indian country with a big bankroll. He
amassed a collection of 800,000 objects - from beads and buckskin to
textiles, basketry, and mosaics - and founded the Museum of the American
Indian in New York City in 1916. Unlike most Native collections, Heye's was
extensive, covering 10,000 years and ranging from the Arctic Circle to the
far tip of South America.
In 1989, the Heye collection was transferred to the Smithsonian
Institution, and Congress established the NMAI by public law. Today, the
NMAI includes the Gustav Heye Center in lower Manhattan; the Cultural
Resources Center in Suitland, MD, a research and collections facility; and
the Mall museum, set to open on Sept. 21. Such is the size of the
collection that it took five years to move, at the rate of one truckload a
week, from New York City to Suitland.
The Mall museum seeks to be a place where Native people can speak in their
own voices. More than a decade in the making, the project has undertaken to
cooperate with tribal peoples across the hemisphere. Openness, respect and
collaboration, qualities often lacking in museums of the past, have been
critical to the effort.
Unlike Heye, the NMAI couldn't roll into Indian country in a shiny
limousine. So the museum developed an elaborate protocol for outreach. On
the advice of experts, the museum identified a Native "liaison" in each of
various targeted communities, usually someone who spoke the tribal
language. Once this liaison agreed to host a gathering, director W. Richard
West typically wrote to the tribal chairperson explaining the Smithsonian's
At a hosted meal in the Native community, two representatives explained the
museum concept, then asked people if they wanted to participate. Of more
than 20 tribes contacted for the major exhibits - "Our Peoples" (history);
"Our Universes" (philosophy), and "Our Lives" (contemporary life) - no one
turned down the offer.
Those who did show up - elders, leaders, community activists - had a stake
in preserving tribal culture. In "Our Peoples", for example, they were
women as well as men, mostly 40 and older, people working to better their
communities. The exhibit would not only be about them, the Smithsonian
explained, but by them. And this would be a museum of living cultures.
Volunteers, recommended by community leaders, stepped forward. For the
history exhibits, the museum interviewed Native people in their homes,
transcribed their accounts, and wrote a script that went back to
communities for editorial changes. The NMAI maintained editorial control
over the main text that links the tribal sections, both writing and vetting
Tribal people were brought to Washington to consult about which objects
would be displayed, in what context, and how they should be handled. About
2,000 objects from the overall collection will be on display in the main
The Smithsonian sought out a variety of tribes and peoples. There are the
Pamunkey, the first sovereign nation recognized by a European power, but
today only state recognized; the Kahnawake Mohawk, one of several groups
among the larger confederated Iroquois; and Native peoples from the
Caribbean, the Amazon and Central America. An exhibit on Chicago features
urban Indians, acknowledging that a majority of Native people today in
Canada and the U.S. live in cities.
"There is no one unified Native voice, said Bruce Bernstein, NMAI's
assistant director for Cultural Resources. "You can't have one exhibit. I
think we want to expose that underbelly of what museums have, for a long
time, stood for." Every few years, Bernstein explains, one or two exhibits
will be rotated out and new ones introduced.
The variety of groups has presented its own challenge. Since the Quiche
Maya of Guatemala had hardly ever seen a museum before, Bernstein said,
they were brought to Washington for an early orientation. "This is what
people think you look like," the visitors were told, looking at an older
Maya exhibit. Their shock at seeing how they were depicted in a traditional
museum, adds Bernstein, "was startling."
Curators are counting on the fact that visitors to the nation's capital
will find the inclusion of tribes from other countries a welcome surprise.
The exhibits will nonetheless reflect the fact that nearly 80 percent of
the collection is from the U.S. and Canada.
Exhibits aside, a good part of the museum's 250,000-square-feet will be
given over to public programming, including films, dance, music,
storytelling, and a public theater that seats 300.
"About 30 years ago it used to be a non-Native person like myself who would
talk about Navajo people," said Bernstein. "And then about 20 years ago or
so, museums learned that you could bring a Navajo person in to talk about
all the Navajo people. And then about 10 years ago or so, museums learned
that you could bring Lilly in, and Lilly would talk about her experiences,
which include being a Navajo person."
"Now we're saying, let's bring the entire tribe in, let them speak, and
we'll facilitate," added Gerald McMaster, deputy assistant director for
Cultural Resources. "We say we're the museum experts, we know how to do
exhibitions, but you know the content."
In other museums, McMaster lamented, "they've never given authority over to
Native peoples completely. And I think we have."